THE CHRYSLER CHRONICLES PART 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 , 7


When Walt Chrysler was terrorizing the bovine population around Oelwein, Iowa, in 1908, learning to drive his fancy Locomobile in an ill-advised fashion, he may have been the fastest moving object for many miles around. In fact, however, the world of transportation was passing him by. In 1908 Ford introduced the Model T and the concept of motoring for the common man; and the Wrights, former bike dealers, mechanics and makers, were already developing passenger aircraft. Soon the brothers would be marketing their soaring invention to world governments as the next big thing in industrialized killing, which of course it was, if you don't count the machine gun, the tank or the poison gas.

By his own account (found in an autobiography called Life of an American Workman) Chrysler was a bit of a hothead, full of reflexive pride, and he didn't take direction or criticism well, especially if his boss was one of these damned college boys. During an ascerbic encounter with his superior at the Chicago Great Western Railroad, Chrysler felt disrespected and quit his high-salaried job on the spot, with a dramatic flare. Despite being hounded to return he took a job with American Locomotive for a much smaller salary, designing and building locomotives in Pittsburgh. Under his watch American Locomotive turned around and started making a big profit. The feat was conspicuous enough in the industrial world that Chrysler was recruited by Charles Nash to run the Buick factory in Flint, Michigan -- the railroad man enters the automobile business.

And what ever happened to Oelwein? The era of gasoline powered trucks and cars sent the railroad town down the long road of decline. Today, according to one new book, Oelwein is a hellish Heironymous Bosch painting of exploding meth labs and incurable addiction, a town frying to death in its own purposelessness. Never been, personally.

At Buick Chrysler found the remnants of a former carriage-making company, not exactly sure how to make autos. He brought some of the industrial efficiency of his railroad world to Buick, modernized the factory, and implemented some of the aspects of modern mass production techniques (Chrysler credits Henry Ford with being the first to use an automatic, motor and chain-driven assembly line; before that they slid the pieces being assembled by hand from one station to the next.) With Chrysler's improvements the factory's production jumped from 45 cars per day to 200 per day, in the same space.

When Chrysler was building Buicks around 1912 the application of electricity was an exciting new feature of motoring. He writes, "...electrical starting, lighting and ignition fired the imagination of everybody in the industry; thereafter women might drive as easily as men. From that time on, everything splendid that had been predicted for automobiles began to come true." (And a lot of the nasty stuff that hadn't been predicted, too.) "We were making the first machine of considerable size in the history of the world for which every human being was a potential customer."

In a corporate soap opera shuffle too convoluted and opaque to be explained here by me, Charles Nash left GM to form his own car company and Billy Durant returned after building Chevrolet to capture control of General Motors Corporation. Durant wanted to make Chrysler President of Buick. Chrysler accepted on the condition that Durant would stay completely out of his business. Durant was the boss of the parent company, but Chrysler wanted total control of Buick, no meddling. When Durant proved unable to keep this promise, Chrysler quit again, this time retiring rich and young with a load of GM stock.

TO BE CONTINUED ...